Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (1040–1105), known by the Hebrew acronym Rashi, authored a running commentary on almost the entire Talmud as well as one on almost all of the Hebrew Bible. Both fairly quickly became essential to all traditional Jewish study and teaching of these texts. In his recent book Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah, Eric Lawee attempts to give this work its proper place in Jewish intellectual history by examining both the commentary itself and its rabbinic admirers and detractors. Discussing the book with Alan Brill, Lawee explains Rashi’s use of midrash—rabbinic exegesis, mostly from the 4th through 7th centuries—which the sage draws on heavily, often presenting it alongside a more literal interpretation:
Rashi’s careful selection and at times decisive reformulation of midrash shaped perceptions of the Torah’s teachings. . . . On one level, Rashi uses midrashim to address countless ever-so-slight “surface irregularities” (to use the scholar James Kugel’s term) in Scripture, such as apparent redundancies. On another level, midrash infuses the commentary with a profusion of theological ideas and elements of pastoral reassurance.
For example, [living in] a medieval world . . . in which Jews lived under either Christians or Muslims as a tiny minority, and at times a persecuted one (Rashi’s lifetime coincides with the violent assaults on German Jewish communities during the First Crusade of 1096), Rashi frequently reassures his reader via his use of midrashic teachings that God’s love for Israel is eternal and that the Jews remain, despite the evidence, the “chosen people.”
[Yet] Rashi does not explain the meaning of the midrashim that he adduces, leaving readers to ponder their purport. . . . [T]hese midrashim . . . remained pliably open to interpretation. Thus the commentary has the capacity to generate a successive unfolding of meaning as the divine word is refracted through Rashi’s commentary and, in turn, the varied lenses worn by his diverse readers.